The first things I noticed upon stepping inside Woodstock’s newly opened Commune Saloon were the unique wine-bottle light fixtures that dot the ceiling. “We drank every bottle that’s hanging on that ceiling as we were working on the restaurant last summer,” says Nicolas Geeraerts, the Belgian-born mastermind behind both the restaurant and the revitalization of the entire property, which includes the popular Bear Café and the legendary Bearsville Theater. “My wife, Jenique, hand-cut them all.”
Geeraerts and his partners “want to create a really great vibe here on the property. Our vision is a place where people can come anytime and find something to do — get something really good to eat or drink, go to the farmers’ market, take a class, or see a really great show,” Geeraerts says.
The 65-seat Commune Saloon represents the first piece of the ambitious plan. Bottles of local hooch line the glass shelves against the windows of the bar, and votive candles placed on small “steps” climb the walls, casting pretty reflections on the glassware once night falls. The building stands right around a venerable behemoth of a maple tree that’s wrapped with white fairy lights, giving the room a fanciful, woodsy feel.
Although we opted for a booth, you can also eat at a table in the billiards room next door; or in the big, light-filled front room, which will host a rotating art show; or even out on the new stone patio that revolves around a large, circular fire pit. The ambience managed to feel casual, cozy, and cool all at the same time. As with its sister restaurant, the Bear, there’s a good chance you may notice someone famous (or someone about to be famous). For example, one night last winter, we were seated next to local musician Simone Felice; a few minutes later, Gary Chetkof, founder of the Mountain Jam music festival and head of Radio Woodstock, walked in to join some friends.
Above left: Smoked brook trout, fromage blanc, and watercress complement the Our G & T cocktail (Plymouth gin, Maine-Root Natural Tonic, rhubarb bitters, and shaved cucumbers). At right: Owner Nicolas Geeraerts
The beer list features eight local brews from the likes of Keegan Ales and the Ithaca Beer Company on tap, as well as a selection of bottles and cans that are both local and international. The craft cocktails are made with locally produced spirits and house-made syrups, and boast colorful, Woodstock-themed names like Joplin’s Poison and Dylan’s Mess. (For those who don’t know, both the Bearsville Theater and the Bear Cafe were once owned by Albert Grossman, manager of Dylan and Joplin).
As in any good gastropub, the menu is designed to complement the drinks. And while the servings are not tiny, the concept is small plates, with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients, including beef from Texas Longhorn raised down the road on the Long-Year Farm, and greens and garlic grown at nearby Sunfrost Farms.
We started the meal with a half-dozen oysters — three West Coast Skookums and three East Coast Naked Cowboys — which arrived on a tangled bed of sea beans with a ramekin of finely diced pickled Persian cucumbers and another of red-wine mignonette bridging the gap between the coasts. We tried the first one with lemon juice only to establish a baseline. It was ruled very good, so we moved on to the suggested pairings (West Coast with the pickle, East Coast with the mignonette) and were suitably impressed by the way they enhanced the fresh, briny flavor. The Smoked Porter made a nice pairing.
Pan-fried Boston mackerel arrived with the tail hanging over the edge of the blue china plate. The perfectly cooked fish was accompanied by a surprising salad of creamy avocado, sweet Vidalia onion, fresh cilantro, and slices of smoked red pepper that lent the whole thing a wonderful, complex flavor.
Lemon zest and chili enlivened a bowl of crispy, fried Brussels sprouts, while maple syrup and banana vinegar added a sweet, fruity flavor. While tasty, I felt that the sweetness overpowered the nuttiness and the spice, throwing what could have been a perfect harmony just a little off-key.
A house-smoked brook trout and watercress and avocado salad was served in an artfully messy pile topped with a light dusting of smoked paprika. Creamy fromage blanc added a necessary note of richness to this delicate ensemble.
Dry-aged rib cap with burrata, black garlic, and pistachios; patrons can opt to dine in the billiards room. At right, John Birong, operations director and partner, shows his competitive side by shooting pool in the restaurant
The trout went beautifully with a salad of wild rice, slices of perfectly ripe avocado, massaged kale, and a handful of sunflower seeds dressed in a smoky, citrus vinaigrette with little pops of spicy black pepper.
A bowl of King Edward fries with Vadouvan (a spice mix that’s similar to masala) mayo looked fairly ordinary, but, when dipped in the beautifully yellow, curried mayo, the crispy, salty fries became downright addictive.
Buttermilk fried chicken was served on a bed of fries with a little bowl of sriracha and another of their truly excellent house-made slaw. A beautifully textured layer of crispy breading protected the tender, moist meat inside. On its own, I found the chicken a little bland, but it really came to life when paired with the sriracha and slaw. My only complaint was that I wanted a big pile of the tasty slaw rather than just a little ramekin of the stuff.
Rib cap with burrata, black garlic, and pistachios was meltingly savory with a deep, wonderful umami from the black garlic and mushrooms that left us wanting much, much more (so much for small plates).
When it came time for dessert, we loosened our belts and ordered the Granny Smith apple crumble, which arrived in a small, sizzling-hot, cast-iron skillet drizzled with chocolate sauce. The topping was buttery and nicely flavored, and the balsamic ice cream was creamy and mild, but the apple had been cut into large chunks and was not completely soft. Still, I can assure you we devoured the entire thing.
But the standout was the trifle — a glass cup filled with layers of rum-soaked sponge cake, slices of grapefruit, and a wonderfully creamy vanilla custard topped with a brilliant purple dollop of blood-orange sorbet. I don’t typically like alcohol-infused desserts and surprised myself by nearly licking the glass clean. However, it needed a larger glass, as dipping a spoon down to the bottom to get to all the layers (a must) caused the custard to spill over the sides. What a tragic loss!
Overall, the food is a fine mix of hearty and sophisticated with some unexpectedly delicious flavors, the work of corporate chef and partner, Michael Hamilton, a British ex-pat who’s worked with culinary greats Daniel Boulud, Gordon Ramsay, and, most recently, Mads Refslund, one of the founders of Copenhagen’s famed Noma restaurant. We’ll definitely be going back.
Open for dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. (until midnight Fri. and Sat.), closed Wednesday.
Small plates range from $6 to $14 with a few higher-priced items, like oysters and cowboy steak. Beers are $5 to $14; wines, $8 to $11; and cocktails, $11 to $15.
297 Tinker St, Woodstock. 845-684-0367; www.thecommunesaloon.com